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Southland Jews go uncounted

Canter's Deli
Jewish businesses like Canter's Delicatessen line Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles. (Photo/Alicia Di Rado)

How many Jews are there in Los Angeles? Hard to say, really: It’s been 17 years since anyone counted. That’s seven years longer than in Boston, New York, Seattle or Chicago, where the local Jewish Federations (umbrella groups for some 450 Jewish communities across North America) dutifully conduct a population survey every decade. But the last count in Los Angeles was taken in 1997, and there has never been a Jewish survey of Orange County.

“There’s evidence of easily 70,000 or 80,000 Jews in OC,” said demographer Bruce Phillips, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a senior research fellow in USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “It could be one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States.”

But without a current population survey, it’s guesswork.

Crunching the numbers

Impatient for new data, Phillips teamed with USC researchers Diane Winston and Richard Flory to study the Jewish population of Southern California by other means. The scholars requested raw results from the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, a national poll of 35,000 Americans, and painstakingly teased out California-specific statistics.

While the sample is small, it hinted at a community “in the midst of a sea change,” as Phillips recently wrote on “Demographic Duo,” his blog at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. 

Here are some of his findings:

  • Jews in Southern California are more racially diverse than anywhere else in the country. True, most are Caucasian: Fully 83 percent described themselves as non-Hispanic white. But nearly 8 percent said they are of mixed race and 7 percent are Hispanic.  Compare that to the Northeast, where 98 percent of Jews are white; nationally, the proportion is 95 percent.
  • Broken down by denomination, Southland Jews also stand out as different. The Orthodox population is far smaller than elsewhere:  a mere 2 percent in Los Angeles, compared to more than 14 percent in the Northeast and 10 percent nationally.  Meanwhile, the experiment-friendly Reconstructionist branch is far bigger. The Philadelphia-based movement, which splintered off Conservative Judaism in the 1930s, now accounts for nearly 7 percent of Jews in Los Angeles County, compared to less than 2 percent nationally. Phillips pointed to the “wide-open religious atmosphere in California” as a possible explanation for Reconstructionism’s appeal here.

The researchers will report their findings at the next meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Surprising changes

Phillips pointed to other trends in Los Angeles that cry out for closer demographic study:

  • About half of the white students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are Jews, based on data from 2000. (White students make up about 8 percent of the district’s students.)
  • Geographic shifts have transformed the Jewish landscape of Los Angeles in recent decades, transforming the Pico-Robertson district into an eclectic Jewish cultural hub. “Pico-Robertson is a Jewish Echo Park. It has replaced Fairfax-La Brea” as a Jewish epicenter, fueled by cheap real estate and an inflow of Jewish immigrants from Iran, North Africa and Israel, Phillips said. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity attracts Jews from across the city, including Phillips, who raved about “this great Yemenite restaurant and a fantastic French-Moroccan bakery.”

While a comprehensive Jewish population survey for greater Los Angeles would cost close to $1 million, Phillips said it would quickly pay for itself by forestalling bad policy decisions based on a misunderstanding of current communal trends.

People tend to greatly overestimate the size of the Jewish community, Phillips noted. According to data from the 2000 General Social Survey, there’s a broad perception that Jews make up 20 percent of the American population. The true figure is closer to 2 percent.  Forty-three percent of the survey respondents claimed at least one of their closest friends was Jewish.

“That’s just impossible,” Phillips said with a laugh, “unless they’re imaginary friends or Jews are incredibly gregarious.”

Bruce Phillips regularly offers undergraduate courses in the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He currently teaches a seminar on “Judaism as an American Religion” and the general education course “Lenses on Society: Literature and Sociology.” Read more about his work on Jewish intermarriage at USC News online.



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